Tuesday October 04, 2022

Apps for tracking cycles are as transparent about their privacy policies than Roe teeters.

Apps for monitoring fertility and tracking cycles are popular and can be very useful tools to help people monitor their health. Reports regularly show that they are not as secure as other health apps. That shortfall is particularly concerning for users in the US after a leaked Supreme Court opinion indicated that the court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade — eliminating the right to an abortion in the United States and allowing states to criminalize the safe and lifesaving medical procedure.Information stored in cycle-tracking apps isn’t covered by the medical privacy law HIPAA, so companies have broad leeway with how they use it — and who they share it with. They share sensitive information with data brokers, advertisers, or other third parties that can be difficult to track. FTC cited Flo as an example of an app that shared data with Facebook despite it promising users that it would keep data private.
Data from apps like cycle tracking apps has not been used to prosecute pregnant women in the US. However, data sucked up through other internet and mobile app use has been used for this exact purpose.
Cynthia Conti-Cook, who is a Ford Foundation technology fellow and wrote a 2020 paper about digital surveillance and abortion, said, “The fact it’s possible”
The Verge reached out and asked popular fertility tracking apps if they planned to improve or strengthen data protections in light of the news that abortion could be made illegal in many states by summer. Many companies didn’t indicate any plans to make changes in response, instead relying on their existing policies that protect user data.
John Kuch, spokesperson for the smart ring Oura, stated in an email that the feature to track menstrual cycles was not planned to be shared. Apple did not respond when asked about its period tracking feature in the Health app. Flo, the company cited in the FTC’s complaint about sharing data, stated in a statement by spokesperson Denae Thibault, that the company had undergone an audit in March 2022 and that there were no weaknesses in privacy practices. It also said that it does not share data to third parties.
Brigid Lowney, spokesperson for Clue, stated in an email to The Verge in which she claimed that the app’s data is “privately protected and secure.” We have received concerns from users about how their data might be used by US courts in the event that Roe vs Wade is reaffirmed. The statement stated that they fully understand the anxiety. It did not state if the company would alter or strengthen privacy protections.
Nurx, a telemedicine firm that offers emergency contraception and birth control, stated in a statement by Ann Noder that it protects patient data. The statement stated that Nurx will review any decision made in light of its mission and principles regarding contraceptive access, affordability, and accessibility.
Glow stated in an email to its press team that it will “continue uncompromisingly protect users’ privacy and personal information”, but did not specify if it would change its policies.
Conti-Cook said she would be skeptical of companies that claim to protect user data but have not seen their business model. Advertisers and other third parties have the right to access pregnant women’s data because they know that this group will be buying new items for their future children. She says that these apps are built on the idea of making data available to partners or selling it. “That’s the business model for all of surveillance capitalism.”
Clue, one, states in its privacy policy that it doesn’t share data with advertisers or third parties. In a blog post, it stated that its business model does not depend on user data. Glow and Nurx state in their privacy policies that they share data to market and advertise. Flo’s policy states that it shares “nonhealth Personal Data” to market purposes.
All four of these companies, along with Oura rings, state in their privacy policies they will share user data in response subpoenas and other legal obligations.
Legal experts are concerned that data from these apps could be used against individuals if they are suspected of terminating a pregnant woman. Jerome Greco, a public defense in the digital forensics unit of New York’s legal aid Society, said that it could not end there. He believes that the future could see it expand and allow them to aggregate data and then parse data to identify suspects. “I believe law enforcement is more tech-savvy than ever in history and have more resources that they’ve ever had.”
The majority of digital information used to prosecute people who terminate a pregnancy is based on internet searches and analysis of someone’s phone. For example, a Mississippi woman was hospitalized after giving birth to a stillborn baby and her internet search history about how to induce miscarriage was used by the prosecution to indict her.
Conti-Cook states that there have been cases in which women’s Google searches, emails, unencrypted communications and other types of messages (like Facebook Messenger) were used against them and their social media posts.
It is difficult to predict how states might use personal health data and digital tools to prosecute those they suspect of ending a pregnancy. Conti-Cook suggests that people can be vigilant about possible future situations to help them protect themselves.
People who are concerned about their data being used against themselves in relation to abortion can take steps. Conti-Cook advises that they don’t share their phones with social workers, police, or anyone at a facility. Use internet browsers that block tracking. To discuss sensitive topics, use encrypted text messaging apps.
She says that digital autonomy is an extension to our bodily autonomy and that’s why we need to think about it.

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